Over in Peter Diamandis Hall, a one-story building renamed for the ISU and S.U. terms that houses the cafeteria and a large ballroom, the jangly chords of Ziggy Marley’s song “Future Man, Future Lady” played. Diamandis stood in front of two screens and a giant globe onto which the school logo had been projected and introduced the team-project concept. “Ten to the Ninth Power,” he said, facing a crowd of Valley luminaries. “Affect a billion people positively over the next decade. Without further ado, I pass it off to our first team to show you what they’d do.”
“Look around you,” said Margo Liptsin, a member of the team known as Acasa and a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University in the history of science. “Most everything was made using an automated process, with one exception. This building. Construction is still done the slow, labor-intensive way.” Acasa’s plan, she said, was to address the problem of substandard housing around the world. Even the crudest prefab houses are hand-built, relatively expensive and time-consuming. “What if there were another way to build a house? What if we told you we could build a home using 70 percent less energy with virtually no waste? How?” She paused for emphasis. “The house would be printed.”
Acasa’s plan was large-scale commercialization of a fringe technology that had been around for a while—using three-dimensional printing to, literally, print houses. A portable unit that is easily constructed on-site extrudes concrete from a nozzle; a one-story house could be completed in two days. “This is not just theoretical,” Liptsin said. “Today we are building walls this way.” This was a crucial point. While the S.U. students had spent plenty of time in the previous weeks pondering downloadable consciousness and other far-out concepts, a successful Ten to the Ninth Power project had to start with an existing technology to have any chance of fulfilling the whole point of the enterprise—affecting the lives of a billion people in a decade. “Neil will tell you how we realize this mission.”
Neil was Neil Thompson, a tall Canadian with curly blonde hair who is currently getting a doctorate in business at the University of California at Berkeley but who considers himself “cross-disciplinary,” with a particular interest in brain-machine interfaces. He began by discussing the challenges. For now, the technology won’t work with foundations or roofs, for instance. But the inventor of this large-scale printer, University of Southern California professor Behrokh Khoshnevis, had joined the Acasa group and was committed to improving on the idea.In the near future, Thompson said, they hoped to be able to print features of the home’s interior, as well as roofs and foundations. It could be adapted to local materials (adobe, say), and by “leveraging exponential advances”—here he clicked to a graph showing the exponential curve, which appeared in every presentation, the Nike swoosh of the Kurzweil philosophy—it’s not outlandish to apply the technique to space, by melting moon rock and saving future spacemen the burden of lugging sacks of concrete with their luggage.
Back here on Earth, Acasa didn’t need much to start moving. With $10 million and 16 months, Thompson said, they could do proof-of-concept, have a prototype home built, and obtain regulatory approval. He cued up Acasa’s video. Essentially a commercial with an original score set to inspiring images, it had been put together in two days by team members and was every bit as inspiring as the ads for which big companies pay millions.
It was obvious that this was as much a pitch slam to the assembled venture capitalists as it was an end-of-term presentation. A number of people stood up and asked incisive questions about potential weaknesses. For instance, do shantytowns have the sewer and water infrastructure to accommodate a sudden burst of permanent housing? One man sitting several rows ahead of me said he was “awed” by the idea but pointed to the $10-million and 16-month figures. “Both of them struck me as, um, optimistic.”
In the end, S.U.’s association with Kurzweil seemed to be primarily a marketing tool to attract attention and top faculty. It also ensured that anyone who came to S.U. would be open-minded and curious, and motivated to take fringe technologies and move them into the mainstream. The students, at least, were pleased with the result. Almost to a person, the denizens of S.U.’s inaugural class reported that the program “exceeded expectations,” as if they were filling in a circle on a Scantron survey.
Of course, it’s yet to be seen whether the schemes that emerge from S.U. will thrive. Gettaround raised $250,000 in angel funding and hopes to soon begin testing its car-sharing concept on college campuses in the Bay Area. Acasa has a business plan, the inventor of the technology on board, and team members in place but was still chasing VC money as of last fall. Members of the other two teams—Xidar, a disaster-response system based on PDAs, and One Global Voice, which aims to build a platform for application-building on the 2G wireless network (which is far more common in the developing world than faster 3G networks)—would continue to pursue capital and partnerships.
Singularity University’s most lasting influence may turn out to be the alumni network it spawns. Next year, the program will grow as large as 120 students, and shorter programs for business executives began last fall.
Yonatan Adiri, the adviser to Shimon Peres, is charged with overseeing the alumni network. He had never read Kurzweil’s book either until Peres gave it to him. What he took away, he told me in the moments before graduation, was the message that every part of our world is changing, rapidly, and that those who thrive are the people most able to grasp the technologies handed to us.
“I do believe that each and every one of us [S.U. grads] within the next three to five years will have a powerful Singularity moment, meaning a moment in which he or she can impact a large number of people,” he said. “Someone said—and I think it’s a very appropriate way of framing this thing—it’s been more about the science than the fiction.”single page